Yet another notable fashion event is happening in Dhaka next week: One day ahead of Bangladesh Denim Expo (BDE) the Bangladesh capital hosts the Sustainable Apparel Forum (SAF). “Enabling sustainability through policy and leadership” is the title of this year's congress taking place on November 5 at International Convention City Bashundhara.
Co-organized by Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE) and Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) the forum will see more than 50 speakers gathered from Bangladesh and overseas discussing topics such as human resources, transparency in business, water conservation, purchasing practices, sustainable chemical management, waste management, circular economy in textiles and climate change.
We talked to Mostafiz Uddin, SAF's founder and CEO, about the mission and goals of the event.
The Sustainable Apparel Forum was established to provide a knowledge gateway and networking platform in Bangladesh that promotes the sustainability agenda within the textile and apparel supply chain of the country. The objective of the Forum is to facilitate a meaningful exchange of knowledge to demystify issues surrounding sustainability for the benefit of factories and individuals.
The second SAF aims to enable Bangladesh to progress as a responsible sourcing destination on the global map by accelerating the momentum of sustainability within the industry through education, awareness and a reduction of the knowledge gap. The forum is bringing together policy level people from all key stakeholders of Bangladesh apparel industry under one roof for enabling the sustainability through policy and leadership.
Will the upcoming edition be any different from the ones before?
While every event is slightly different, the overriding theme of SAF is of sustainability. Of course, this is a very broad area so we focus on particular issues within that. For example, the objective of this year’s forum is accelerating the momentum of sustainability in the Bangladesh apparel industry through policy and leadership. It will include more than 50 speakers gathered from across the world sharing expert opinions at five panel discussions covering current issues in the apparel industry. These include human resources, transparency in business, water conservation, purchasing practices and climate change.
Alongside the panel discussions a “Sustainability Center” will be created within the SAF ground to allow the apparel industry supply chain to exhibit their green products and initiatives along with technology development companies, solution providers, material innovation companies and other relevant organizations promoting solutions for sustainable apparel manufacturing. The SAF will also be organizing a Green Factories Tour to enable international visitors to witness, firsthand, advances made in the Bangladesh apparel industry.
You have been traveling around Europe in October to talk about SAF. Who did you talk to and what was your mission?
The mission was two-fold. First of all, I wanted to discuss the SAF and tell people what it is all about. It can be a challenge encouraging people to come to Bangladesh and it is my job as the event organizer to engage people and encourage them to come and see for themselves the transformation that is taking place in our country’s apparel sector.
Secondly, my travels had a broader mission of promoting Bangladesh apparel industry and let the European stakeholders know the improvements of the country’s apparel industry and its strides in sustainability.
You got H&M on board–among others–for the upcoming SAF. How do they support the event?
They support the event in two ways. They provide financial support in the form of sponsorship. Without the valued support of sponsors, these kind of important events could not happen. Secondly, they provide us with credibility and exposure. Having a large, respected international retailer like H&M on board makes it clear that we are a serious, high profile event. This can help to attract other organizations as well as encouraging more people to attend the event. One of the main objectives of H&M is leading the change in sustainability which complements the event in the fundamental way.
H&M is still often accused by activists of greenwashing. What’s your take on that?
There is a phrase–“the bigger they are, the harder they fall.” H&M is the second largest apparel retailer in the world. As such, it is inevitable that the company will be the focus of attention, good and bad. Remember also that this is a huge company operating in a fast-moving industry. People want it to make change but change will not happen overnight at a business the size of H&M. It takes time. H&M is certainly doing much more on sustainability issues than many of its competitors. H&M’s sustainability strategic focuses are 100% leading the change, 100% fair & equal and 100% renewable. I find H&M here in Bangladesh as one of the most sincere and “walk the talk” customers among others. Their sustainability agenda is an integrated part of their business-making decisions.
By joining this SAF it is also clear that how committed they are to upholding sustainability. However, sustainability in the industry cannot be possible only by a single brand or individual.
The SAF knowledge sessions offer the perfect opportunity for issues surrounding sustainability to be aired and discussed in a forum conducive to encouraging healthy, engaged discussions that can drive sustainable change within the Bangladesh apparel industry.
We don’t just want a talking shop–there are already too many of those. With the discussions made at the second SAF a “Sustainability Roadmap” for the Bangladesh apparel industry will be formulated with the aim of influencing changes in policy making. This roadmap will also be followed up in the next editions of the SAF as we want to create impacts.
Does it need stricter laws by all governments to achieve better results for responsible production?
It probably does but more important is the enforcement of the laws. In Bangladesh the existing laws are strong and protective to promote sustainability. There will be times when making a profit goes hand in hand with being sustainable. For instance, introducing energy and water saving techniques can offer a quick return of investment for an apparel factory. There are also other times, however, where it actually pays for a business to take a short cut and this is where we need better enforcement of the laws. Creating awareness among people about the laws and its consequences are also important and here SAF will obviously play its role. Moreover, I believe that the duty of responsibility for establishment of a truly sustainable, responsible global apparel supply chain lies with all stakeholders in the process from fiber and fabric producers, with the manufacturers, with the brands and retailers and, ultimately, with the end consumer. Education of the end consumers about the effects that their purchasing decisions can have on workers’ welfare and the environment is crucial for ensuring responsible production.
In the Western media it seems that Bangladesh’s image is still negative when it comes to responsible production, environmental matters and workers’ safety and rights. How do you comment on that?
It saddens me that the Western media often choose to portray the Bangladesh apparel industry in a negative light, choosing to focus on what is bad about the industry rather than the improvements the sector has seen in recent years. Bangladesh is now home to seven of the 10 global leading LEED apparel companies and the industry is striving to improve in all areas of sustainable production.
I am not, for a second, suggesting that everything in Bangladesh is perfect, but, in my opinion, the steps that have been made to improve workers’ safety, environmental concerns and to produce more responsibly deserve greater recognition and encouragement by the Western audience. A wider understanding of the advances that have been made will encourage more manufacturers to invest in and adopt more responsible business practices–which can only be a good thing! In the second SAF, as I mentioned earlier, we are organizing tour to some of the green factories of Bangladesh to facilitate the internationals visitors to see the transformation of the industry and commendable practices of the factories in the areas of sustainability.